With Jayalalithaa gone, M Karunanidhi at an advanced age and with intense political rivalry among his progeny, it’s time for a reflection on the future trajectory of a by now bi-polar Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu. This politics is not just bi-polar in the sense of competitive formations led by two big parties, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam, replacing each other in power from time to time ever since DMK won state elections under the leadership of CN Annadurai in 1967 and AIADMK under the leadership of MG Ramachandran in 1977. It has also become bi-polar in its attitude towards the Centre and the parties and alliances vying to rule at the Centre; its dilution of the exclusivist ethnic and cultural constructs of a strident identity politics it had adopted in pre-independence days under the leadership of EV Ramaswamy Naiker, or ‘Periyar’; and his self respect movement and Dravidar Kazhagam that he had founded, and its twin pursuit of identity-based share in power and a subsidy-based populist inclusion in economic development.
All this is a far cry from Periyar’s original militant, anti-Brahminist, anti-Sanskritist, anti-North Indian, anti-Hindi and separatist Dravidian politics which Annadurai, VR Nedunchezhiyan, M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa had inherited. In fact, Jayalalithaa’s death rituals symbolically represented the bi-polarity of the contemporary Dravidian politics and the distance it has travelled from its original moorings. While Jayalalithaa’s long term companion Sasikala Natarajan performed her burial according to the ancient Tamil practice, possibly pre-Brahminical, instead of cremation as per her natal Iyengar Brahminical tradition, a kin of hers was also there to perform certain Brahmin rituals. That said, Jaya was very much a product of Dravidian political trajectory. Dravidian ideology was also a rebellion against the classicist Brahminical cultural straitjacket. Major Dravidian politics practioners like Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa were not high brow intellectuals and classicists but amplified their politico-cultural communication and mobilisation by their strong association with Tamil popular culture and films. Though Jayalalithaa was well trained in Bharatanatyam, it wasn’t the cultural capital she invested in her politics but her popularity as an actor and association with MGR, the shining star of Tamil cinema.
Jayalalithaa’s death rituals symbolically represented the bi-polarity of the contemporary Dravidian politics and the distance it has travelled from its original moorings.
If DMK in its first stint in power between 1967 and 1976 consolidated two planks of Dravidian politics of resisting Hindi imposition and ensuring proportionate representation in bureaucratic power to non-Brahmin communities through job reservations—a practice later emulated in the North Indian states—MGR’s AIADMK took off from there towards economic inclusion through mid-day meals in schools and other subsidised welfare schemes. Later under Jaya, AIADMK dipped into dole dispersal in kind and was competitively met by the DMK.
As far as politics is concerned, Karunanidhi in 1969 had first chosen sides in the power struggle at the Centre by supporting Indira Gandhi in backing VV Giri for presidentship. While this fobbed off the challenge of his hitherto Congress political rival K Kamaraj, it also signified no return to the separatism of original Dravidian politics that had been jettisoned by Annadurai himself. MGR took this accommodation with central politics further by allying with Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1977, and participation in the short-lived Charan Singh government in 1979. The breaking away of AIADMK from DMK has assured that both the rival parties would seek central allies to come to power in the state—a practice that was continued till now by both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa and buttressed by the fact that the age of coalitions had also dawned at the Centre since 1989.
Will Jaya’s successors survive the Centre that beckons hard all plurality towards the uniformity of a top-down political and economic order? And can the other pole of Dravidian politics not follow suit? These are moot questions, the answer to which would depend on the strength and resilience of Dravidian politics.
But the times they are now a changing at the Centre and in the country. A resurgent identity politics of majoritarianism is ascendant at the Centre under the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party. It has a strong centralising tendency in politics and economy and has an anti-federal instinct in both. Jayalalithaa took a last ditch stand against GST in keeping with the strong federal moorings of Dravidian politics as it had evolved in its post separatist phase. As seen on television, the Prime Minister’s gesture of consolation was a palm that seemed to draw Jaya’s successors Sasikala and new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam closer to him. Will Jaya’s successors survive the Centre that beckons hard all plurality towards the uniformity of a top-down political and economic order? And can the other pole of Dravidian politics not follow suit? These are moot questions, the answer to which would depend on the strength and resilience of Dravidian politics.